The year was 1988. Reagan was in the White House; the Olympics were in South Korea; the Internet worm made headlines; and half a dozen rising television stars came together for one made-for-TV original movie that wouldn't change many lives, but it did change mine. Directed by Paul Schneider and airing on NBC, Dance 'Til Dawn gave this blogger a first taste at high school life through the fictional Hoover High's "Paris in Puce"-themed prom and all of the drama surrounding it. Twenty-five years later, this rare gem somehow managed to skip a reunion film (a travesty with all of that talent!), and though the decade that spawned it certainly dates it, the spirit more than holds up, especially when considering recent fondness for nostalgia.
Dance 'Til Dawn is an ensemble piece featuring two generations: the teens who are currently preparing for their senior prom and the parents who had been there and done that years earlier and now buzz around their kids, affecting how they approach the big event. While stereotypical high school themes like taking the geek out of glasses and suddenly seeing she's actually hot are present, Dance 'Til Dawn goes deeper to consider the actual characters underneath such stereotypes.
Then-Growing Pains star Tracey Gold is that geek, aka Angela "Dull" Strull, who wears Coke-bottle glasses and dowdy dresses and abides by every overbearing rule that her religious parents (Kelsey Grammer and Edie McClurg) set for her. Until the night of the prom, that is. For four years, she and best friend, eclectic artist Margaret (Tempestt Bledsoe) planned a night of Tom Cruise VHSes (I said many elements were dated!) and "pigging out 'til dawn" instead of the titular dancing. But the day of the prom, the "coolest kid in school," AC Slater-mullet-wearer Kevin McCrea (Brian Bloom) asks Angela to be his date, and it is an offer Margaret can't let her refuse.
Of course, in any typical teen movie fashion, Kevin has an ulterior motive. It's not as sinister as Carrie, but it's not as petty as She's All That, either. He is determined to get laid on prom night and hears from a friend that Angela is a "sure thing." After four years of dating the girl-next-door Shelley Sheridan (Alyssa Milano) and still not getting any, Kevin ignores the obvious signs that his friend is making sh*t up and follows the wrong head to Angela, who has no idea of his grand plan. All she knows is she's going on a date-- finally-- that turns into quite the magical experience for any teenage girl, let alone one who as spent her life on the sidelines. They dine at a fancy restaurant; they are [Spoiler Alert!] voted King and Queen of the prom; they hit the hottest after party surrounded by people she now considers friends. Of course along the way, he begins to actually like her, and she begins to come out of her shell and actually grow in her own self-confidence. This is not a movie without a message, but it's not delivered as schmaltz or in a post-tragedy after school special sort of way.
But Angela isn't the only character to find her way in Dance 'Til Dawn, and that is what I always loved and responded to most about the movie. If it was just one girl's tale toward popularity, it would be like so many other similar projects. But here, it worked both ways and while a geek was getting over her flaws and becoming cool, the cool kids were showing that they, too, were flawed. Even the parents had things to work through-- insecurities and image concerns they carried all the way from high school and shaped them into the kind of adults they turned out to be. It was not a matter of social standing but of character that determined who owned them, who overcame them, and who refused to admit they were there, making them human.
Then-Married with Children star Christina Applegate fits into the latter category, as Patrice, a spoiled, controlling, image-obsessed young woman who writes down the tie and cummerbund her boyfriend Roger (a practically mute in the movie, though with Patrice as his girlfriend, you can't blame him, Matthew Perry) must get to match her dress, which matches the prom theme she picked out. After all, she has to "go with the room" for everything to be picture perfect. She assumes she will win Queen because she assumes everyone loves her. But Patrice was OG Regina George, and no one, least of all the audience, should feel too badly when her tightly-wound plans begin to unravel around her.
Then-Who's the Boss star Milano is the actual most popular girl who is revealed to be deeply insecure, and though pretty, kind of one-note in relying on that prettiness (and her previous label of Kevin's girlfriend) to get her through things. She starts the movie so worried about image, just like Patrice, that she hires a limo for herself just to keep up appearances that she's going to the prom with long-time boyfriend Kevin. She then keeps moving all around the small town, afraid of running into people who know her and therefore will know she's not at a super cool frat party-- her reason for why she "didn't want to" go to the prom after all. But her literal journey is also an emotional one as she gets to know the geekiest guy in their class, Dan Lefcourt (Chris Young), who is also hiding out so his dad (then-Growing Pains star Alan Thicke for an extra oomph) doesn't learn he didn't have a date either. They may be the most unlikely pair according to their yearbook, but their fear of letting other people see the real them bonds them because they actually share their real selves with each other.
Even Roger grows (a backbone) by the end of the movie!
I can't exactly pinpoint what spoke to me when I was a wee child watching this movie. I was certainly familiar with most of the cast, though I was hardly the pop culture connoisseur that I am today. In fact, it was my knowledge of pieces of little known pop culture history like this one that made me really earn that title. I was far too young to relate to many of the events, though already the idea of caring too much about what others thought was a theme ingraining in me through my own family and school friends' families and small town. On Dance 'Til Dawn, that theme is not limited to the kids, either. Both Angela's parents and Dan's dad are guilty of it. Patrice's parents (Mary Frann and Cliff De Young) are much more concerned with their own marital problems of constantly bickering and wondering "what could have been" since they got married too young. Reflecting, it's obvious that Patrice's parents reminded me of my own (and provided me with my favorite psycho-analytic line that I would scream in my apartment on countless occasions about how kids are "better off if their parents are happily divorced, rather than unhappily married") and Patrice was my personal cautionary tale. At the time, though, I think the upbeat music, princess dresses, and pastel colors probably added to the initial appeal.
Over the years, I re-watched Dance 'Til Dawn until my self-recorded VHS wore out. I started seeing myself and my own insecurities and issues reflected in some of the characters. Coming of age stories with young women at the center weren't easy to come by-- especially on television-- so I relished what I had. I shared my feelings with these fictional characters as some of them did with each other. I went to high school myself and learned whether due to city or year or simply not being produced by Hollywood, my own class didn't really reflect Hoover High '88. I tracked down a seemingly-studio produced VHS on eBay and still checked in, now to note how far I had come-- and just how suggestive that make-out point car scene was (seriously, Shelley got pregnant on prom night, right? Oh how Kevin probably kicked himself when he learned she actually was ready-- just not for him. Also, the sequel really writes itself...). Later I found a DVD on Amazon and introduced the movie to my college and post-college work friends. I still watch it every few months or so. While I always got a good giggle over expository lines like "I remember when I was a little girl way back in the '70s," I started to see the wit in even the asides ("If you don't want to go to this religious college, just stand up to your parents and say so. I mean, what are they going to do? They'll probably just turn the other cheek"). But mostly, as the years went on, and times changed, and kids grew up faster and faster, I enjoyed the sweetness and simplicity of this story all the more. It was rare then; it's even rarer now. And the fact that it's rare to not only remember it but also to do so immensely fondly and passionately makes it even more special.
Today, October 23 2013, marks the 25th Anniversary of Dance 'Til Dawn. I think I'll celebrate by hosting a screening and then brushing the dust off a reunion script I attempted during the 20th Anniversary, ironically entitled Dance 'Til Dusk. It will follow the format of Dance 'Til Dawn, with the then-teens now the parents and a new generation with much more modern concerns on their special night. Join me, won't you?